To Meet the Demand, a photo of Ben

Contrary to popular belief, Ben cannot see through his eyelids, not even when he’s looking at the glaciers in Aialik Bay.

Posing for a Goofy Picture

It’s a good thing that we weren’t models for the Turnagain Arm Tourist Board because I think Ben wouldn’t have made the enthusiasm cut…

Mat Su Valley

Yesterday the New York Times did a small travel feature on the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in Alaska. (The Mat-Su Valley or just, the Valley, for short.) It made me think of home and also made me realize that while I’ve talked about Alaska in the context of my adventures and of Sarah Palin, I’ve never talked about growing up and the natural beauty and history that surrounded me. (Or what a GREAT travel spot Palmer Alaska is!)
Pioneer Peak

Pioneer Peak is the iconic view in the Valley. It’s on the edge of the hay flats. These fields, filled with dead trees, are a constant reminder of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. The quake, a 9.2 on the richter scale, caused these fields to drop over 10 feet (if I remember correctly) and killed all the trees. So fields turned into bogs. (If you’re interested in natural disasters and don’t know about this quake, you should check this out. Lots of people don’t know about it, but it’s absolutely fascinating.)

With two of my favorite Alaskans, Daniel and Jeanette, in the Church of a Thousand Trees
In Alaska, we went to the Presbyterian church in Palmer. The church itself was founded in 1937 by the colonists of Palmer (who at the time were still living in tents…in Alaska…in the WINTER). The church is made of logs and while other similar churches in the community have since been replaced, this congregation has decided to keep the original sanctuary. It’s a very nice sanctuary and I’ve sung approximately 120 Sunday services from the choir loft. I also used to play tag throughout the church.

Our first Alaskan house

When we first moved to Alaska we lived across the street from my dad’s office in a small neighborhood of other people who also worked with dad. Our house faced Pioneer Peak (here hidden by the house and clouds). On the other side of the house is a HUGE garden and play set. Our first summer we were out playing on the play set with other families while our parents worked in the garden. Eventually one parent looked at a watch. OOPS! It was 11pm. (I was 4, my brother was 1…we probably went to bed around 7 at that time.) That’s what happens when the sun sets at midnight or later.

Our real Alaskan house

It took a while, but my parents finally found the house they were looking for. Picture windows that looked over the mountains, a trout stream in the back yard, lots of sunlight, etc. There was also this excellent sledding hill (doesn’t look intimidating from this angle) that was much less cool once these people moved in at the bottom and built their stupid suburban fence.

Finger Lake Campground
This campground is less than one mile from the house. The lake is a 10 minute walk from the house. We used to come here and skate after school in the winters. In the summer, we’d canoe out to the island in the left hand corner and jump into the lake from the rope swing. OK, Anthony would jump in. I’d wuss out and not jump in. I think we may have also had bonfires out their and roasted hot dogs.

Little Su

Alaska has lots of glaciers. Glaciers melt. This means that there is lots of melting glacier water that needs to go somewhere. Usually this means glacial rivers and streams. The Little Su or Little Susitna River is a glacial river that comes from some glacier up by Hatcher’s pass. It’s small, but characteristically, it’s silty and incredibly cold. On a REALLY hot day when we were young, my best friend and I used to get her mom to drive us up to this look out to go “wading.” As much as you can wade around boulders when the water is 40 degrees. When Ben and I went it wasn’t nearly warm enough to stick our toes in, so we settled for dipping our hand in to check the temperature.

Hatcher’s Pass
If you read the New York Times article, you read about the Independence Mine State Historic Park. (I used to have a t-shirt from there…I was that cool!) Independence Mine is located within the larger Hatcher’s Pass area. Hatcher’s Pass encompasses the blob of mountains to the North of Palmer. There’s one road to get up there and, come early to mid-July, when the snow melts, you can drive all the way to Willow.
Old Glenn Highway

There is something somewhat magical about living in a place where this road used to be a “major highway.” Driving was a big part of our lives in Alaska. Emailing Simon yesterday, this is how I described it: We didn’t live in a town, we lived between towns. We ran errands in Wasilla. We went to church in Palmer. Dad worked in Palmer. I went to school between the two towns. In that way, I also don’t feel that I really associated that closely with either town. When Wasilla came on the national stage, that’s how I labeled myself because it was an easy box to fit in. It gave people an image. My parents did the opposite. They spent last year being from Palmer so that they weren’t associated with the same images. Either way, we spent huge amounts of time in the car. Piano lessons, band, sports, concerts, errands, library, work, bookstore, meetings, coffeeshops…all these required 5 to 60 minutes in the car, depending on whether they were at school or as far away as Anchorage. But time in the car isn’t so bad when you have views like this. (It wasn’t nearly as nice on winter days with 40 mph winds and blowing snow…)

The Butte

This was one of the only hikes, as a child, that my mom could get us to willingly go on. Even then, I think we only successfully made it up once or twice. (The hike is 1.5 hours, max…) At the base is the Reindeer Farm. We never went there.

Moose food
Moose are a part of daily life in the Mat-Su Valley. Primarily this is in the winter, but this picture is a reminder that even in summer the moose are always around, looking for snacks. Here, we’d gone to visit a friend and she’d had moose in her yard that morning (June 30). The green stalks in the forefront had been covered with leaves the day before. Probably the equivalent of a couple of M&Ms to a full grown moose, but a treat, none the less.
If you are visiting Alaska, I’d encourage you to take some time and explore the Mat-Su Valley. There is much more that I haven’t talked about here that is just as gorgeous, or more so, and can fit any style of travel, from backpacking to resort. It was a great place to grow up and I’m sad to not be able to call it home anymore. If you visit, say hi from me, I miss it.

Where are you from?

Today someone asked me the simple question, “Where are you from?” Every time someone asks me that question I get confused and I don’t know how to answer. So the questioner went deeper, “Where were you born?” “Wisconsin.” “Well, where did you grow up.” “Um, define grow up…”

Baby Katie with parents (in Wisconsin?)

No, I’m not a military kid, I’m a professor’s kid. We moved as my dad changed jobs. The confusing question for me is where did I grow up. I spent ages 4-14 in Alaska, but 14-21 in Kentucky. So where did I grow up?

My family with our dog, Traveler, in Alaska
Alaska in many ways feels like home. My formative years were there. I got my first driver’s permit there and it’s just cooler (literally and figuratively) to be from Alaska than from Kentucky. It took me two years in Kentucky to stop saying I was from Alaska, but I still felt torn. Now, it generally depends on the occasion whether I say I have ties to Alaska, but I rarely say I’m “from” there.

Family picture in Kentucky

Spending only seven years in Kentucky, however, doesn’t make me feel justified in saying I’m from there either. I usually go with the line “my parents are in Kentucky,” when asked why I’m heading there. Being from there leads to a conversation about why I don’t have a drawl or about basketball (about which I know almost nothing…)
At the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 2007. It was about -30F.

Now, thankfully, I can use the line, I’m from Minnesota. It’s a line which is, at least temporarily true. (This also leads to the realization that I have spent 17 years of my life at or above 43 degrees North latitude, so from now on that’s the line I’m using 🙂 )
I’ve never felt like I’ve been without a homebase, because my parents have always worked hard to make where ever we lived be home. It’s only when I get asked “where are you from?” that I get flummoxed. I’ve been yearning for Alaska today because my hometown ‘hood, as it were, made the NYTimes travel section. I’ll write about that tomorrow, but it brought up some intense homesickness and longing for home. While I know that Alaska isn’t my home anymore, seeing the pictures and hearing the stories made me remember a time when it was. And that makes me smile.

Back in time

Well, loyal readers, it is late. That is because I did not fully understand the terms of Ben’s challenge (so I had to do an extra 30 minutes of exercise…). And because I made dinner, called my parents, and planted some plants in farmville (EVIL EVIL GAME!). Then I checked election results. But I thought that maybe on Tuesdays throughout November I’d go into my archive of old photos and post some of them here. They will, of course, be embarrassing, making it all the better for you, the reader. Today’s theme is Alaska, because I was telling Alaska stories today.

You might be surprised to learn that there is grass in Alaska and it does turn green. Otherwise my dad wouldn’t have had a job. I am wearing thick gloves in this picture though. I’m also hoping that my brother is wearing boots and that his jeans aren’t rolled up, cause that would be really embarrassing for him if they were…

We had to shovel off our deck so that the snow didn’t cave in our garage or melt into it. When I say we, I mean my mom. This lead to us having great piles of snow surrounding the garage for sledding or tunneling. Or posing for pictures in. Notice the great reflective tape on my coat, this is a recurring theme. Mom could never find coats that were reflective enough, so she’d always sew on additional reflective tape. That’s what happens when you walk to and/or home from the school bus in the dark.
This was probably taken around 4 or 4:30pm. I would tell you 11am, but that would imply I was skipping school which was definitely not the case. Unless this was the year I was homeschooled…

I love that I have a more dazed look than the snowman. I believe, in retrospect, that this was fairly common throughout middle school. My mom’s most frequent accusation was that I left my brain in my locker. Looking back, I think this was probably deserved. Also, that hat plus that hood made my head look ginormo.

Apparently, even with all the snow outside, I still needed snowflake sheets. And a Flags of the World poster. That was before I upgraded to the Map of the World that had a border of Flags of the World. I would also like to take this moment to point out that while I sometimes complain about my family being weird (which is very true) it is also very cool that in addition to reading out loud almost every single night between 0 and about 12 or so, we also sang for a portion of that. While most of it was a capella, apparently sometimes Mom played her guitar. Awwww.

And, because my family doesn’t seem weird enough, here we are (my aunt, brother and I) having a picnic on an afghan in the middle of a parking lot IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER. I believe this was the only winter picnic, because of the high high high volume of complaining (similar to many outdoor activities).
Now I will leave you to your Wednesday and I will start digging up more pictures for next week, because I know this will leave you anxious for more embarrassing pictures and stories, which I will, for some bizzarre and unknown reason, most likely supply.

The World of Sarah Palin

In the past few weeks not much has changed with me. Well, I guess that’s really a lie. I’ve left Google and started year 4 of my Ph.D. back in Minnesota. I’m neglecting the blog a little and instead have been doing homework, spending time with friends, and doing a bit of travelling. (I’m in Iowa for the weekend.)

But, one change is something that I hadn’t seen coming. For the past 10+ years, when people ask me where I’m from in Alaska, I reply with, “A small town about an hour from Anchorage.” If the person appears to have in depth knowledge of Alaska, I’ll give them the town name, but that’s fairly rare. Mainly the person wants to know if I lived in an igloo and whether or not I hung out with bears.
With Sarah Palin as the Republican VP nominee, suddenly everyone has heard of Wasilla Alaska. “Hey. Wait. You’re from Alaska, what do you think of Sarah Palin?… You’re from WASILLA? REALLY?”
While this blog won’t become political, and many of you reading know how I feel about these issues, I thought this would be the perfect time to use my recent pictures from Alaska to introduce you to the metropolis that is Wasilla, Alaska. For those of you who don’t know, I lived in Wasilla from 1989-1998 and my trip to Alaska in July was 10 years to the day since we’d left. Much has changed, but some things are still the same.
This is the view of Wasilla as you enter on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. Palmer is now a touristy small town while Wasilla is a big-box suburb type city. A huge number of stores, retaurants and shops have gone in since we left.

All I Saw Cookware (All I Saw is Wasilla backwards with different spacing) This was almost the best place in Wasilla. One year my brother won grand prize in the Candymaking for Under 12 year olds at the Alaska State Fair. He got a $25 gift certificate to All I Saw Cookware and bought an icing bag set.

The above picture is the back side of All I Saw. The other side looks towards Carrs, which was where my mom did a lot of her grocery shopping.
Below is a picture of the new Target. Target is opening in Wasilla and Anchorage in October. Wal-mart’s been in town for quite a while now. Where Target stands now, there used to be a mall. Cottonwood Creek mall. We went trick-or-treating there one year. Another year my jazz band played Christmas music there. I don’t remember what stores were in the mall other than Walden Books.

There is a very odd trend of espresso shacks in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (where Palmer and Wasilla are). Maybe in all of Alaska. These are stand alone little sheds that have a drive-through coffee business. Most of them were closed as we drove by, so we didn’t get to check it out. Dad says they existed (although weren’t as prolific) before we left.

I went to sixth through eighth grade at Colony Middle School. I have many fond memories of the school, teachers, and classmates. I was part of a fantastic Science Olympiad team which went to Nationals in Michigan in 1998. We had a great band and music program and I was constantly challenged. Strangely enough, I was reminded last week of one of my former substitute teachers. While many subs are forgetable, I remember one sub from middle school who stood out. He was someone who our teacher never left lesson plans for. He taught us about wildlife and survival techniques (i.e. what happens if you get between Mamma Moose and her Calf) and told great stories about his former class trips. Strangely enough, I’m 95% positive that this memorable sub was Sarah Palin’s dad, Chuck Heath.

This is the library. I’m pretty sure that if we could’ve gotten away with it my brother and I would have lived in the library. Wasilla (and Palmer) was a small town, so by a certain time we knew all the librarians. Mom didn’t like us tagging along while she did grocery shopping, so she’d leave us in the library for an hour while she shopped. (The librarians were ok with this.) We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. The library had a checkout limit of 40 books per person at a time. My brother would check out 20 Tintin books and 20 Bill Peet books at a time. I checked out cookbooks and novels. Boxcar Children, Bobbsey Twins, a biography of Evita Peron. I loved it all. I remember being shocked when I worked at the library in Kentucky that some parents only let kids check out 5 books at a time! What did those kids do all week?
When we got home we had to write our books in a notebook to keep track of them and ensure we didn’t have late returns. We also had a column for whether we’d read the books, so to this day, my mom has a record of my pre-teen reading. This trip we didn’t get to go inside the library, but the brown and yellow building was enough 🙂

It’s always strange going back to a place you once knew. It feels like it’s the same, but so much has changed. It’s like meeting friends from elementary school who you used to spend all day every day with, but you’re now 25 and you have an image of them in your mind as 8 year olds. They’ve grown up, as have you, but it just doesn’t feel right. Hopefully I’ll get to go up to Alaska again before another 10 years have passed, but for now, these pictures will tide me over.

Hiking in Girdwood

I previously mentioned that Ben, Scott, Tricia, and I went hiking in Girdwood. Girdwood is a small town about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage, toward Seward. It is best known, I think, for being the home of the Alyeska Ski Resort, by far the best ski resort in Alaska. I skied there twice in eighth grade and remembered it fondly.

I am not much of a hiker. To be honest, I never have been. After this hike, though, I called my mom to apologize for being such a spoilsport as a kid. (Lots of the whining involved mosquitoes, the rest was bears and tiredness, I believe.) I would have whined my whole way through the hike 10-15 years ago, but now, well, it was simply stunning and worth every minute.

One plant I hadn’t seen for ages was Devil’s Club. It took Tricia and I a while, but she eventually remembered what it was called. We knew it wasn’t something you should touch, we were just blanking on the name.

The Winner Creek hike starts behind the tram up to the top of the mountain and follows along the base of the mountain, later winding to follow streams and ending up at a gorge with a hand tram. Below is Ben pulling himself across.

On the other side of the gorge, we climbed down to the river and took pictures. Then we headed back to the resort. I was having problems with my hiking boots, not having worn them in about 5 years, and Tricia suggested the perfect remedy.

I put a bandage over the blistering area and then covered it with duct tape, which Tricia cleverly had on hand. That seemed to do the trick for quite some time.

Back at the resort, we paid to go up to almost the top of the mountain, where the chalet and restaurant are.

The guys were excited about throwing snowballs.

I liked the fact that there were still runs officially open on June 28.

As a kid, I used to think that skiing down from the top (which I never did) would feel like skiing straight into the ocean.

Finally for tonight, I leave you with this picture of a double black diamond at Alyeska. Compared to this, most slopes in Minnesota are no more than bunny hills.

These posts are getting a little picture heavy, but that helps break up the page. Leave me a comment if you like it or hate it and I’ll try to respond.

By request (with lots of pictures)

My friend Simon wanted me to chime in and tell a story involving people and bears. Given that she is probably the only person reading, I thought I’d better comply.

This is the picture in question. It’s now my user pic in several places because it’s just brilliant. You have to know one thing about me before I tell this story. I have two things that I am incredibly afraid of: guns and bears.

When I started looking up information about Aialik Bay, I kept reading phrases like this: “All food and drinks must be kept secured in the cabin at all times. Black and brown bears frequent this area.” That wouldn’t be nearly so frightening if there was more civilization, but as I’ve said before, the human population in Aialik Bay is sparse at best.

It’s not that I haven’t faced this issue before. When I was little and we went to go climb Flattop, Mom, in order to keep my brother on the path, mentioned the true story of another little boy who the year before had been mauled by a bear while wandering off the path. Intended result: My brother would stay on the path. Unintended result: I was scared to leave the car and wanted to race back to safety as soon as possible. While tenting in Denali, I wouldn’t let so much as a crumb in the tent for fear of being attacked. Girl Scout camping was the same. My final year at church camp (Bingle Camp) we decided the last night that there were bears outside. (No memory as to if there was data to support this conjecture.) But we were safe, because we were in cabins. Then our helpful counselor told us about a bear who had essentially smashed down a house and mauled the people inside. None of us slept that night. So needless to say, my fear of bears is very deeply ingrained and rational at times, to a degree. (In that bears are, in fact, dangerous and like the smell of food and toothpaste.)

I had been intellectually gearing up for this for several weeks before leaving. I bought a bear bell and we picked up some bear spray in Anchorage. However before leaving for the wilderness, I had several test runs. Ben’s co-worker (and our neighbor) Scott and Scott’s fiance Tricia were also in town for the conference. On Saturday, Scott and Ben headed to the conference while Tricia and I headed to have breakfast with friends of mine and then explore the zoo. The Alaska zoo is pretty cool (more on that some other time). Standing around by the black bears, I thought it would be great to get a fake terror shot. Me facing the bears, very scared. So we took some shots. The photo above was the best of the bunch, although an earlier try is below. (The bear is so small though, it’s just not as impressive.) It’s just as well we did this with the black bears as the brown bears were all asleep. So that was my first interaction with the bears.

The second was a hike on Winner Creek Trail at the base of Mount Alyeska. Scott and Ben picked us up at the zoo and we headed to Girdwood for this hike. (More on that another time.)

This was the trail head. Opposite this was the bulletin board with all sorts of notices, most of which involved bears. But Tricia had her bear spray holster and there were four of us and we didn’t see any bears.

Then we were camping in the Mat-Su Valley where I had never seen a bear, so I was pretty relaxed. Heading down to Seward, we stopped at the Russian River where we saw this sign on sturdy fencing:

and

Then we went on a hike to Exit Glacier, without our bear spray or bell, but with plenty of other moving pieces of food with us on the trail. We made it out just fine.

I was at peace about bears when we stepped on the boat in Seward. Then the captain started telling us about all the black bears that were always around Aialik Bay and near our cabin. I began tensing up. He proceeded to tel us about a friend of his, who, a week earlier, had been mauled by a brown bear in Seward. (The friend survived.) Then he dropped the subject and we picked up some kayakers from the cove next to ours. They’d had a black bear cub poking around their camp the previous night for 30 minutes. I went tense again. Then we got to our cabin and we were alone, supposedly, with the bears. For the first few hours, I was tense, but then I realized that the chance of me being mauled while walking to the outhouse was slim, especially armed with bear bell and pepper spray.

The ranger came by that evening and informed us that there were “lots of black bears in the area.” Again, my nervousness returned. No signs of bears the first day. The second day (the gray day, described below) I went out on a walk on my own and then decided that the seal in the middle of the bay was, in fact, a bear and it was going to come get me, so I went back inside and read my book.

By day three I was a little mad at the bears. I’d showed up, we’d bought bear gear galore, I’d mentally prepared and now there weren’t any bears? Seriously? That wasn’t fair. I decided that I wanted to see a bear with the following stipulations. I wanted to be in the kayak, I wanted to be far away from the bear, and I wanted the bear to be in another cove. (I had forgotten that if a bear had wanted to enter our cabin, it definitely could have.

But alas, no bear. So I had gotten all intellectually prepared and physically prepared and we never even saw a bear in the wild. (We did see a wild moose and humpback and orca whales…) That is my anticlimatic story of bears in Alaska. As a special preview, I’ll let you know that tomorrow, also by Simon’s request, I’ll talk a bit about Mount Marathon and the annual fourth of July run.

It wasn’t always perfect

On our second day in Aialik Bay, the day I wanted to do two biggish kayaking excursions, we woke up to this gray. Gray is fine. I can handle gray. But I was sluggish getting up and then we had to eat and wash dishes, and by then it was raining. Ben went on a long walk down the beach and I curled up in the cabin and started reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an oddly appropriate book. (Appropriate because it takes place in Sitka, AK where the weather is almost always like it is in this photo…gray and rainy.)

So I spent most of the day sleeping or reading and then we went on a long walk down the beach, where this picture was taken. It’s amazing how some places are still so gorgeous even when the weather is less than ideal.

This is a shorter post, but it’s also about nine hours overdue. For that reason, I’ll toss in another gray picture for free. Aialik Bay has lots of dead trees, leftover from the tsunami/earthquake in 1964 that heavily damaged Seward and changed the landscape of much of south central Alaska. (This is not a super optimistic post.) For more information go to the Wikipedia page.

Because my train of thought is leading to more images, I’ll throw in one tsunami related image. This is a new awareness campaign, I believe, in coastal towns near fault lines. (I’ve seen it in Seward and Monterey, CA) For some dark reason, I find it highly amusing. I think it has to do with the visual, not the message.

Aialik Glacier


At the end of the week in Alaska, Ben and I spent several days at the Aialik Bay Public Use Cabin. When I lived in Alaska, we never did touristy things like go out to the wilderness or go on boat trips. Anything we did along those lines was generally school related. We rarely even went hiking (but that’s a story for another post). So it was a bit of a surprise when Ben explained that his plans for part of our trip involved going to a cabin for two days. The cabin is a three to four hour boat ride from Seward. It has no electricity or running water.

So when Ben said that, I started worrying. This is a place where you are advised to bring an extra four days of food and supplies because if a storm comes in you could be stranded. This has never been my idea of fun. Then I realized that the main thing that people did in Aialik Bay was kayak. Also not my favorite activity.

The last (and only) time I went kayaking was in Montreal in 2003. I went to a kayaking class through the youth hostel. The kayaking was down on the canal. At some point I managed to flip the kayak and as I was leaving the class I had severe pain in my ear. I ended up at the doctor. It turns out that the pressure of the water against my eardrum was dangerously high. Could have burst it.

So, anyways, my memories of kayaking weren’t ideal. Ben had never been kayaking, but in part persuaded by my mom, I decided to go along with the kayaking idea. Because double sea kayaks are more stable than singles, we rented a double for our trip. In the above picture, Ben had just brought the raft we brought our stuff to the beach in back to the boat and is heading back to the cabin.

In weather like this, though, it was hard to not love kayaking. It was warm and dry enough so that we didn’t freeze after climbing into the kayak in bare feet via the ocean. Having two paddlers meant one of us (me) could take a break while the other ensured we didn’t end up on shore or in front of a glacier. Plus I loved kayaking because it was not on land. Land was where the bears were and to be honest, I wanted to stay as far as possible from the bears. But that’s another story.


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